An interview with Edgar Martins

When did you get interested in photography? What triggered this interest?

I started out studying Philosophy with view to becoming a writer. (At the time I did not realize that writing could be part of an all-encompassing, multidisciplinary practice). In 1996, at the tender age of 18, I published my first book and, to date, the only book I have ever written. It was structured as an experimental, bio-poetic-philosophic-novel.

I now see this as my first attempt to make sense of the world around me and to communicate with an audience. It was this book that made me realize I wanted/had to study visual imagery. And that’s very much how I got into Photography. I had little or no interest in the medium prior to that and all but a brief encounters with it.

What is it about photography that interests you today?

When I started playing around with photography I was attracted to what I perceived to be the possibilities which the medium opened up. Strange, then, that what drives me nowadays are not the possibilities Photography opens up but its inadequacies, its insufficiencies.

I find Photography a highly inadequate medium for communicating ideas and am constantly wrestling with this recalcitrant medium. However, it is this very anxiety with the medium that spurs me on to find a new visual language to work with and, I suppose, a new vocabulary from which to derive my glossary of life.

What was your first camera? Please tell me about it. Do you have a favourite camera today?

Truthfully I don’t remember. But I do remember being given a Minolta XG1 SLR camera when I turned 16. Not a great camera, but it had some history to it as it had been my father’s in a previous life. I still have this camera.
Nowadays I work mostly with 8×10″ analogue plate cameras and this suits my way of working greatly. It has completely changed the way I approach my subject matter.

© Edgar Martins, 2012, Lindoso power station control room from the project ‘The Time Machine’

Do you prefer photographing with film cameras or digital? Has the development of digital technologies within photography changed the way you work?

I have only ever worked with analogue cameras. It’s a much more introspective, reflexive, engaging and methodical process.
I’d like to think that many of my projects have sought to highlight a point of resistance. Resistance to the world of flux and flow that we live in, to a world haunted by mobility, intangibility and uncertainty. That is why, in my images, I actively seek to slow down time by working almost exclusively with long exposures (ranging from 1minute to 3 hours). Large format, analogue cameras are the perfect medium for long exposures.

However, I am not a purist in any way and so I have kept up with the development of digital technologies, particularly post-production processes. Nowadays my work interlinks both analogue and digital devices as a way of commenting on photography’s primary semiotics and enhancing the paradoxical possibilities of the photographic image.
I have made use of both of realism and fiction in my work in order to rethink and reconceptualise contemporary issues and ideas as well as to questions the viewer’s perceptive faculties, i.e. his convictions and expectations. Correlatively this also enables me to reflect on the place of the photographic.

Do you have any photographer(s)/artist(s) that inspire your work?

There are too many to mention. From the ‘orthodox’, documentarist camp such as The Beckers, O’Sullivan and some of the early topographic photographers, Walker Evans and other American greats, to the more conceptualists/experimentalists like Divola, Breuer, Tosani, Richon, Stezaker, etc. There’s also the Dusseldorf school, particularly Esser, as well as a multitude of Japanese and Northern European photographers. Last but not least there’s a plethora of my own contemporaries whose work I regularly draw on. But I’d say that most of my direct influences come from other fields: art, literature, science, etc.

The way some of your pictures in many of your projects (including the ones in ‘The Time Machine’) look make them seem almost clinical, why is this?

There is always an aesthetic choice, but I see this is more to do with methodology than aesthetics. Though my work has the appearance of being minimal, somewhat formal and precise, the process through which the works are crated is normally everything but precise. In fact it can often be quite chaotic. This dualism interests me. The straight rectilinear planes and perspectives and the minimal approach also helps to reinforce the illusion of photographic transparency.

What was it about the power plants in ‘The Time Machine’ that caught your attention?

As someone whose practice has been rooted in social, urban and technological research and who has increasingly worked in hard-to-access environments, I am interested in the dialogue that these environments can provoke and the methods/systems of creative production that they can activate.

If one compares the architecture of many of these power stations (some which date back to the Estado Novo era, others to a period earlier than that, so from the 1920’s to 1970’s) to more modern power stations, it becomes immediately transparent that these were far more than mere economic, utilitarian or functional projects. They were also aspirational and social projects. They aspired to be true exponents of what we today associate with the ideology of the Modern. And what really interested me is that today we known that nothing panned out in the way that the ideological narrative of the Modern made us believe that it would.

No more than half a dozen people, including specialists and cleaning and security staff, run places which, in some cases, were intended to house up to 250 workers just a few decades ago. There is a visible and intriguing overlapping and confluence of temporalities in these interiors.

I have to clarify that the emphasis on the desertification of the technical sites doesn’t represent a criticism of these spaces, as such, as they had an important role in the socio-economic development of Portugal. It merely points to the reality and paradox of Modernisation and Modernism on the whole. You could say that The Time Machine is as much a study of the inner workings of power plants as it is of 1950’s technological modernism and utopias.

by Mari Boman, volunteer

For more info on our current exhibition of visit: Edgar Martins: The Time Machine

To hear Edgar Martins talk about his work and practice in person, come along to his Artist Talk in the Photofusion Gallery on Saturday 28 September at 14.00

To book email: [email protected] or call on 020 7738 5774